Photos from the Vault

Deadly stretch of Hwy. 46 began as a much-needed shortcut

Five men died and one was seriously injured in the mangled car in the foreground on Highway 46 in September 1988. The early-morning accident on the Cholame Creek Bridge near Shandon involved a sedan and a tractor-trailer.
Five men died and one was seriously injured in the mangled car in the foreground on Highway 46 in September 1988. The early-morning accident on the Cholame Creek Bridge near Shandon involved a sedan and a tractor-trailer.

Folks can become jaded to the algebra of life.

Air-conditioned steel compartments streak across asphalt at 102.66 feet per second, when the speedometer reads 70 mph.

That is about 2 1/2 -school-bus lengths, or the height of a nine-story building, in one second.

Stopping distance for an average car at 70 mph on a dry surface is about three times longer, around 315 feet.

Now reduce decision-making time by sending those cars on a highway in opposite directions, with only the strength of a double-yellow line of paint between them.

Given the math, all it takes is a split-second distraction, surprise, mechanical failure or bad decision, and a fatal chain-reaction accident can be the result.

Our county has four major state highways that fall into the two-lane category: 41, 46, 58 and 166.

In 1999, The Tribune reported that over the previous decade the highways combined for 91 deaths in 126 head-on collisions.

Highway 46 East (Paso Robles to the county line) was the shortest (30 miles) and deadliest (42), with more than one death per mile in that decade.

Efforts have been made to divide what has come to be known as Blood Alley, and construction has moved in phases east from Paso Robles to Shandon.

A recent flurry of fatal accidents are a reminder of why the construction must continue.

Origin of the highway

A little over a century ago, there was no east-west highway in that spot. That is, until May 24, 1909.

On that day, The Daily Telegram ran three transportation stories on the front page.

A horse race was anticipated in Arroyo Grande, and the fast runner had clocked a mile at 2 minutes, 13 seconds.

R.A. Brassey, dare-devil San Francisco chauffeur, was trying to break a speed record from San Francisco to points south. He had left at 3 a.m. the previous day and arrived in San Luis Obispo at 10:55 in a Thomas car. He didn’t have time to talk to a reporter but his “mad career” through Santa Barbara and Ventura led to arrests, from which he promptly bailed out and continued his drive.

But the biggest news was that a private road connecting the Central Coast and the San Joaquin Valley, roughly the equivalent of Highway 41/46 from Paso Robles to Coalinga, was now in use.

Here’s the report, edited for brevity.

Automobile stage from Paso Robles today: New road over the mountain is opened

It was just 7:35 this morning when the big automobile stage coach started from Paso Robles on its trip across the mountains to Coalinga in the San Joaquin Valley. The car had not been advertised to start this morning, but there was a passenger and two complimentary passengers were carried to give them an idea of the new automobile stage road, which is considered the most important event in the history of Paso Robles since the coming of the Southern Pacific Railroad.

The line is operated by S.J. Levy and E.R. Abadie Jr. It was expected to start running the machines by June 1, but all arrangements being completed, the road was opened today.

The route goes through the R.E. Jack Co.’s property, the Cholame Ranch, the exclusive right of way having been given to these gentlemen.

It is proposed to have the cars running daily each way between Paso Robles and Coalinga. There will be both passenger and freight autos, so that commercial travelers can be accommodated by a trip across the country for themselves and not be completed to travel 500 miles to reach the coast, as they frequently do, when 80 miles will cover the distance across the country.

It is reckoned to take 4 1/2 hours to make the trip between the Springs city and the Oil city.

The gentlemen have already invested $22,000 in first-class machines, and travelers will have every comfort.

The road will be maintained in a first-class condition, and improvements will be made from time to time as business warrants it.

The opening of the San Joaquin Valley and the coast is far more important than one realizes. When the notice of the proposed line was first published in The Daily Telegram, many did not appreciate what it meant to this city and to San Luis Obispo County.

By the opening of this new route, passengers may now leave Fresno in the morning and reach San Luis Obispo the same day.

David Middlecamp is a photographer for The Tribune. 805-781-7942,, @DavidMiddlecamp

Visit to see old photos and read selected archives.